A Light for Revelation
In these first two chapters of his Gospel, St. Luke sets the stage and prepares us for the life and ministry of Jesus. The story so far has been filled with angelic heralds announcing that the Messiah is coming. It’s been full of the stories of men and women (and even angels) coming face-to-face with this Good News and then bursting out into Spirit-inspired song, praising God for his faithfulness, his mercy, and his loving-kindness. And these announcements and these songs have prepared us prophetically for what Jesus has come to do. They draw on the language of the Old Testament—especially on the language about a coming King in the line of David and on the language of prophets like Isaiah. As we come to verses 21-39 of Chapter 2 we’ll see more of this. And yet so far, while the language has hinted that Jesus might not be quite what the people expected of their Messiah, in these verses the joy expressed at his coming is tempered with a sombre tone. We get the first hints that what Israel has been wanting and expecting in the Messiah may not match up with what God wants and expects. God’s plan is finally coming to it’s fulfilment, but not everyone’s going to go along with it—which throws men and women like Joseph and Mary, Zechariah and Elizabeth, and in these verses, Simeon and Anna, into sharp relief and forces everyone to ask: Have I submitted myself in faith to God to his plan or am I going to fight him?
In the first part of Chapter 2 we read of Jesus’ birth while Joseph and Mary were staying in Bethlehem. We read about the announcement to the shepherds by the angels and about the shepherds, who were the first to visit Jesus and to honour him as the promised Messiah. In verse 21 Luke takes us to the events that took place the following week:
And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
“Jesus” is what the angel had said the child was to be called and so that’s what his parents call him. Joseph and Mary show their obedience and their submission to God’s will. Luke suggests that they named him at his circumcision, which took place eight days after he was born. Before we get into the significance of Jesus’ circumcision, let’s look first at verses 22-24. Jesus’ circumcision and his presentation in the temple are closely related. And so from his circumcision in verse 21, which took place when Jesus was eight days old, Luke now jumps ahead to the fortieth day after his birth:
And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”
Most of us are already familiar with the rite of circumcision. It goes back to Genesis 17 and God’s command to Abraham that all the men of his household be circumcised as a sign of God’s covenant. In fact, God described circumcision to Abraham saying, “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you” (Genesis 17:10). It was the outward and visible sign and seal inseparably connected with God’s offer of covenant grace. Circumcision was an act of faith by which Abraham and his descendants took hold of God’s covenant promises, just as Baptism is for us an act of faith by which we do the same. It wasn’t optional. You couldn’t have the inward grace without the outward sign and seal. Any male not circumcised, God said, was “cut off from his people” (17:14).
But what about the “purification” and the “presentation” that Luke writes about? Purification is one of the requirement of the law’s purity code and goes back to Leviticus 12 where we read:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, If a woman conceives and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days. As at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Then she shall continue for thirty-three days in the blood of her purifying. She shall not touch anything holy, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are completed.” (Leviticus 12:1-4)
Blood had a very special place in God’s Old Testament economy. As the source of life it was precious. A flow of blood rendered one unclean. And while there were almost certainly issues of health and sanitation connected with these purity laws, in stressing the importance of blood and its connection with life, it points to Jesus and the importance of the blood he shed to restore us to eternal life. And so after childbirth a woman was unclean for a period of time. After that time she was to make an offering. Leviticus goes on:
“And when the days of her purifying are completed…she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb a year old for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering, and he shall offer it before the Lord and make atonement for her…. And if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering.” (Leviticus 12:6-8)
The lamb of the burnt offering restored purity. The pigeon or turtledove was an offering for sin. There was nothing inherently sinful in being unclean, but it was necessary to atone for the sin of being absent from the sanctuary and it’s for this reason that the sin offering required only a small bird—there was no moral guilt involved. And so Mary and Joseph make their way to the temple for her purification. Actually, Luke refer to “their” purification, which is a bit of a mystery, but the best explanation is probably that Joseph had helped with the delivery, had touched Mary’s blood, and was unclean himself as well. Those who were well off would offer a lamb for the burnt offering. Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary offered a pair of turtledoves. It doesn’t mean they were destitute. Joseph, we’re told worked as a carpenter. But it does tell us that they were “poor”, at least relatively speaking. They were amongst the very class of people Jesus had come to “exalt” and to “fill…with good things” as Mary had sung in her song.
While the family is at the temple for Mary’s purification, they also “present” Jesus. This goes back to God’s command in Exodus 13:1:
Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine.
In Numbers 18:15-16 God elaborates:
Everything that opens the womb of all flesh, whether man or beast, which they offer to the Lord, shall be yours. Nevertheless, the firstborn of man you shall redeem, and the firstborn of unclean animals you shall redeem. And their redemption price (at a month old you shall redeem them) you shall fix at five shekels in silver.
The firstborn of every creature was consecrated to—belonged to—God. The firstborn of clean animals were to be sacrificed and the meat given to the priests. Firstborn boys were to be redeemed with a payment of five shekels. They were to be bought back from God by their parents. What’s interesting is that Luke doesn’t say anything about Joseph and Mary paying the five shekels. He simply tells us that they presented him at the temple; they presented him to God. And that suggests that they dedicated him to the ministry they knew we was called to. They didn’t redeem him, but gave him up to his true Father. It’s not clear. Luke may be assuming that his readers were familiar with the practise and so doesn’t mention the payment, but if not, we see right here at the beginning that Joseph and Mary were giving up their son to God’s plan.
And that points to Luke’s point in telling us about Jesus’ circumcision and presentation and Mary’s purification. Joseph and Mary are truly pious and obedient. They know the law and they fulfil it to the letter. But Luke’s point isn’t that they did all of this legalistically or because they had to. His emphasises what they did so that he can point us to why they did it. God had met Joseph and Mary in the miraculous birth of this little boy and the two of them responded in all these things in a believing and trusting faith. They knew God’s promise of a deliverer, of a Messiah from the Scriptures. They lived in eager and hopeful expectation—they lived in faith—of God’s fulfilment of those promises. And now they respond in faith to the announcements of the angels in what would have been the most natural way: they bring their son into God’s plans by obediently naming him Jesus and by circumcising him and presenting him at the temple. In faith they bring him into the covenant and dedicate him to their God in accordance with the instructions he had given all the way back in the days of Abraham and Moses.
Now, Joseph and Mary didn’t realise the full import of what they were doing. Again, they were acting in faith and doing what came most naturally to Old Testament believers. But in their faithful actions, they help Jesus to fulfil his ministry. St. Paul tells us that God sent his own Son in the likeness of human flesh (Romans 8:3). He became incarnate as one of us; he became our brother in the flesh, born of a woman, born under the law, so that he could redeem those who stood condemned by that law (Galatians 4:4). And so even though Jesus knew no sin, he submitted himself to the obligations of law so that he could redeem his brothers and sisters from its curse. He came to take our guilt, our sin, our impurity on himself, and so he was circumcised and so he was baptised by John as part of his journey to the Cross. He submitted to the law so that we, his brothers and sisters, could be freed from its condemnation.
But fulfilling the requirement of the law isn’t all that happens on this trip to the temple. Jesus’ identity is again confirmed. Luke goes on in verses 25-28:
Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God…
These are Simeon’s credentials: he’s righteous and devout and Luke describes him with language that makes him a successor to Isaiah’s ministry. Isaiah was the one who looked forward to the “consolation of Israel”—to the deliverance of Israel. And it was Isaiah who had said, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me” (61:1). In Simeon’s case, the Holy Spirit had revealed to him that before he died he would see the Christ, the Messiah. And so he had waited for years and years in expectant hope and on this particular day, the Spirit had prompted him to visit the temple and to approach the man and woman presenting their little boy there.
Again, Luke shows us God at work. To fulfil the requirements of the law, Joseph and Mary had brought Jesus to the temple at the appointed time and while they’re there, the Spirit brought Simeon. The four of them meet and something wonderful happens. But notice, God doesn’t force any of this to happen. It happens because Joseph and Mary and Simeon are listening and obedient, whether to the Scriptures and the law or to the Spirit.
When Simeon sees Jesus he bursts into song, but what he says contrasts dramatically with everything else so far that’s been said of Jesus. This meeting takes place in the temple—the focal point of God’s ministry to the Jews and a place forbidden to gentiles. It takes place as Joseph and Mary fulfil their obligations under the law. But Simeon’s song points to something much bigger than the temple or the law or even the Jewish people.
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:30-32)
As Luke’s description of Simeon is rooted in the language of Isaiah, so is Simeon’s song. And yet Simeon brings Isaiah’s hope into the present. He had been promised that he would see the Messiah before he died and so he says with absolute certainty: “My eyes have seen your salvation”. In praise he tells the world that he can now depart in peace. That “now” is loaded with significance. Simeon is saying that “Today’s the day. Salvation has come. Not tomorrow, not next month, not next year…salvation has come this day and now I can depart in peace; I can depart full of shalom. “The thought underlying [Simeon’s] wording is of a slave who is instructed by his master to keep watch through the long, dark, night on a high place to wait for the rising of a special star and then to announce it. After wearisome hours of waiting he at last sees the star rising in all its brightness. He announces it and is then discharged from keeping watch.”
One of the many remarkable things about Simeon is that he has a much deeper understanding of the promises God had made through prophets like Isaiah. Most of the Jews were looking for a national deliverer—one who would re-establish David’s kingdom and set the Jews over their gentile oppressors. And as much as Simeon lived in hope of Israel’s consolation, the salvation he sees in this little boy, Jesus, he says, has been sent into the “presence of all peoples”. Yes, he has come for the glory of Israel, but he is Israel’s glory because he is a light for revelation to everyone else. Simeon was one of the few who understood Israel’s mission, going all the way back to Abraham. They weren’t to be the rulers or overlords of the gentiles. They were to be a blessing to them as they manifested God’s light and here comes that light, incarnate in the Son of Mary, ready to represent Israel as God’s salvation is brought to all the peoples, not just the Jews.
Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph marvelled at Simeon’s words and that Simeon blessed them, which would have been a natural response on meeting the parents of the Saviour. But then, after his joyful proclamation, Simeon speaks more sombre words to Joseph and Mary:
“Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”(Luke 2:34b-35)
In his song, Simeon had said that Israel’s consolation, her glory, would be a light to all peoples and if that’s true, it means that this child come to deliver is also going to bring conflict and crisis. Through Isaiah God had said on one hand:
See, I lay a stone in Zion,
a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation;
the one who trusts will never be dismayed. (Isaiah 28:13, 16)
But on the other hand he had said of that same stone, also through Isaiah:
[H]e will be a sanctuary;
but for both houses of Israel he will be
a stone that causes men to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall.
And for the people of Jerusalem he will be
a trap and a snare. (Isaiah 18:14-15)
Simeon says that Jesus, as the Messiah, will lay bare the thoughts, the motives, the hearts of many. He hasn’t come simply as the Saviour; he has also come as Judge. There will be many, like Joseph and Mary and like Simeon whose faith will be built on the foundation of this stone, but many others—those looking for a Messiah to overthrow the Romans or the Herodians, those looking for a Messiah who will be connected with the earthly temple, those looking for one who will come in violence rather than peace; those looking for a Messiah to give them earthly power and authority—for all of them this stone will be a stumbling block. And so while Simeon rejoices at the salvation that has come in Jesus, he also reminds Joseph and Mary that this baby will also bring conflict and that he will be rejected by many. He tells Mary that it will be as though a sword has pierced her soul. Luke doesn’t elaborate on what this means. Is Simeon referring to Mary’s grief as her son is rejected and eventually crucified? Is he referring to the way he will, like a sword, divide family loyalties as some are lifted up by the stone and other stumble over it? Luke deliberately leaves this statement of Simeon’s open-ended. It’s his way of inviting us to look and listen as Jesus’ ministry unfolds.
But Simeon isn’t the only one who greeted Jesus in the temple that day. Look at verses 36-38:
And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.
The credentials of all these people who reveal Jesus as the Messiah are important, and so Luke actually takes more time to tell us who Anna is than he does what she said. He wants to make sure we know that she’s qualified to identify Jesus as the one come to bring redemption.
Anna embodies the ideal of a pious and holy woman. In fact, Luke draws on the language used to describe Judith. If Anna had been married seven years and then widowed for 84—which probably represents a better reading of the Greek text —and had been married at the usual age of 14, she would be 105 years old—the age at which Judith was said to have died (Judith 16:23). To remain a widow for so many years, never remarrying, echoed Judith too and was held up as a pious ideal. And like the great hero, Judith, Anna is devoted to the temple and to fasting and prayer. And yet fasting in that day was a sign of mourning. For someone to fast meant that something was wrong. And so Anna’s abstinence—both her remaining a widow and her fasting—express her hope. Like Simeon, she was living in hope and expectation of the coming of Israel’s consolation—or as she puts it, “the redemption of Jerusalem”—and spent her time fasting and praying, asking God to send his Deliverer and to set right all the things that were wrong. Many people might have admired Anna’s piety, but they might also have seen her as something of a wet blanket with all of her fasting and praying. And yet here, as the Spirit brings her to meet Jesus, like Simeon, she bursts forth into praise as well. Luke doesn’t tell us what she says, but it doesn’t matter; the point is that she recognised Jesus as the promised Messiah. Her praise certified his identity just as Simeon’s did.
Luke ends the account in verse 39. He began by highlighting Joseph and Mary’s obedience to the law. Now he writes:
And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.
The story began with humble obedience and submission by this man and this woman of faith, and it ends with a reminder of their faithful obedience and submission.
Brothers and sisters, Joseph and Mary and Simeon and Anna serve as reminders to us that as God’s plans unfold, a humble, trusting, and obedient faith is the proper response. God’s purposes will be accomplished no matter how we respond. And that’s where the danger lies. This is why Simeon foresaw conflict and crisis in Jesus’ ministry. What the Jews wanted and expected wasn’t the same as what God wanted or expected of them. This had been the problem since the beginning. God promises us his perfect goodness, but we don’t trust him and we go off, instead seeking what we think is good and we fall into sin. God had wanted for the Jews to manifest his glory to the world, but for much of their history, his glory was manifested not in his blessing them, but in their disciplining them, because they refused to follow him in faith. Jesus brought this conflict to its height as he called men and women away from their misplaced sources of hope; he called them away from power and authority, from pride and from money, and called them into a kingdom not of this earth and offered to create a temple of them not made with hands. And for disrupting the power-base of those who insisted on their own wants and expectations, Jesus was crucified. And yet even the Cross was part of God’s sovereign plan. Today it stands as a foundation stone of redemption for many and a stumbling block of condemnation for many more. It points us back to Joseph and Mary, to Zechariah and Elizabeth, and to Simeon and Anna and their faithful response of humble obedience and submission. Do we insist on our own plans and priorities and even our own ideas of who God is and what he’s supposed to do for us? Or do submit ourselves in faith to the God who reveals himself in the Scriptures, who calls us into his kingdom through the “foolishness” of the Cross, and who empowers us to live a new kind of life through his indwelling Spirit.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, we prayed in the Collect for grace that the light which you have poured out in the Incarnation of your Son may shine forth in our lives. Give us that grace we pray. Give us grace to respond in trusting faith to Jesus, that your light may shine through us as we make him the foundation stone of our lives and that as the light shine forth from us, others might see him for who he is and respond in faith as well. We ask this through him. Amen.